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Not much of a choice

By Abdel-Jawad Saleh* , Al-Ahram Weekly, June 22, 2000

The United States and Israel seem to have placed their bets on corrupt dictators whom they can trust as peace partners. They think dictatorships make the best neighbours. Their calculations are based on the racist belief that Israel's neighbours are divided by tribal, religious and ethnic rivalries. In other words, they are not worth democracy.

On this basis, too, the Israeli prime minister sees Palestinian President Arafat as a more reliable partner in negotiating the final status issues than any potential successor.

The majority of Palestinian entrepreneurs, who had returned to Palestine to study the possibility of investing there, have fled because of corruption. The absence of law constitutes a real threat to investment. A few corruption-mongers have remained, looking for carrion. They have found that it is easier and quicker to make money by recruiting the highest-ranking officials as their partners in newly established companies and monopolies.

Public tenders and contracts were tailored to their interests. The higher the partner's rank, the more numerous the millions involved.

Some of these companies' partnership agreements are not known to the public. The Palestinian Legislative Council cannot investigate them. The privatisation of the communications sector was planned and executed behind the relevant minister's back. He does not know the contents of the agreement, though many years have had passed since it was signed. The company monopolises communications in PA-controlled areas.

One of the heads of the security agencies was asked whether some of the negotiators had entered commercial ventures with Israelis, as the rumour had it. He replied in the affirmative. And why not? After all, ministers and PLC members have entered such joint ventures, he asserted.

The US, Israel and the donor countries are not particularly enthusiastic about combating corruption. These countries are sacrificing Palestinian democracy and transparency to entice Arafat into signing an agreement based on Israel's vision of a "final solution."

In October 1999 I was invited to attend the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Durban, South Africa. The speaker of the PLC decided not to send an official delegation funded by the UNDP as a way of preventing me from participating. I attended anyway, and paid from my own pocket (it cost more than a month's salary).

During the deliberations, I was abruptly prevented from continuing my speech about corruption in the PA. I had been given the floor as a full member by the South African minister of justice, who was chairing the session. But I was stunned when Kevin Ford, the American chairman of the IACC Council, rushed to the podium and asked the minister to prevent me from continuing my speech to the 1,600 delegates assembled.

The social fabric of Palestinian society -- its entire value system -- are shuddering under the blows of the PA's policies. Poverty is spreading as corruption accelerates. Infighting, still on a limited scale, is being fueled by dangerous slogans: sectarianism, differences among refugees and locals, between urban and rural dwellers. These prejudices, and the tension they have engendered, constitute a phenomenon unprecedented in Palestinian history.

The "Declaration of the Twenty" has expressed objectively the Palestinians' disappointment with the PA. The signatories' justified anger with its handling of the negotiations and support for a corrupt system was the basis for mobilisation toward democratic change.

This climate poses a major challenge to the PA. The ongoing process of negotiations on the final status issues will determine the nature of the future map of Palestine.

The Israelis and Americans are telling Arafat that peace requires us to forget the past. In other words, we must forsake Jerusalem, surrender the refugees' right of return, disregard the settlements and the geography of cantons they perpetuate, abandon the 1967 borders...

Strategic questions must be answered. There is unanimity among Palestinians that any leader who compromises on the right of return, for example, will be signing his own political death certificate. Neither Clinton nor his friends in the Israeli government are worried about Arafat's future -- after he signs, that is. Barak, with his myopic perspective, is concerned with winning the hearts of the Israeli right. Peace does not matter to him.

If these men fail to understand that a viable peace and a working democracy will benefit everyone, they will destroy any vestige of good intentions. Peace and democracy are inseparable in the achievement of a sustainable peace. Yet Arafat has abandoned all the "non-negotiable" demands of the 10-Point Programme adopted by the PNC in 1974. He has not only relinquished the call for a democratic state in all of mandated Palestine, but also backed down on the 1947 Partition Plan. He is negotiating now a replacement solution comprising only 19 per cent of Mandate Palestine.

As for Israel, it is determined to implement a new partition plan in the territories it occupied in 1967 -- the 19 per cent left over from Mandate Palestine minus Jerusalem.

Clinton is eager to induce Arafat to accept the new Israeli partition plan in the proposed trilateral summit this summer. He is especially anxious to go down in history as a peacemaker rather than just a womaniser. The Israelis and the US are sure that Arafat will acquiesce to their demands. They have learned that President Assad's death could help a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement to no end. But I believe that the shadow of Hizbullah's victory will haunt Arafat. The envisaged "peace agreement" will be neither just nor sustainable. It will be a trap into which Arafat will fall headfirst, and a dump where the Palestinians will be able to bury their hopes and their aspirations.

The PA will become a new South Lebanese Army. Israel will become the apartheid state of the 21st century. It will use its prowess and its nuclear threats to bully the whole area into submission. And everyone will lose, in the absence of a peace that lives by the principles of a new century: democracy, human rights, good governance, and civil society.

The victims, of course, will be the overwhelming majority of Arabs -- and democracy itself. The Palestinians, however, will lose the most. The reaction that will rise from the ashes of frustration, apathy and repression is difficult to predict. The PA's policies -- deinstitutionalisation, destruction of social values, a legal vacuum, the absence of sovereignty and the alienation of the people -- will drive the Palestinians inexorably into the trap of violence. If the emerging independent leadership succeeds in mobilising a non-violent struggle, then -- and only then -- will the Palestinians be on the right track to achieving their just and legitimate rights.

* The writer is a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

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